It Ain’t Your Baby - Trust

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

It Ain’t Your Baby

When people talk about their creative work, they often call it their “baby”—which is the exact opposite of taking things lightly.

A friend of mine, a week before her new novel was to be published, told me, “I feel like I’m putting my baby on the school bus for the first time, and I’m afraid the bullies will make fun of him.” (Truman Capote stated it even more bluntly: “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the backyard and shot it.”)

Guys, please don’t mistake your creative work for a human child, okay?

This kind of thinking will only lead you to deep psychic pain. I’m dead serious about this. Because if you honestly believe that your work is your baby, then you will have trouble cutting away 30 percent of it someday—which you may very well need to do. You also won’t be able to handle it if somebody criticizes or corrects your baby, or suggests that you might consider completely modifying your baby, or even tries to buy or sell your baby on the open market. You might not be able to release your work or share it at all—because how will that poor defenseless baby survive without you hovering over it and tending to it?

Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into. Creativity has hand-raised me and forged me into an adult—starting with my experience with that short story “Pilgrims,” which taught me how not to act like a baby.

All of which is to say that, yes, in the end, I did squeeze an abbreviated version of “Pilgrims” into the November 1993 issue of Esquire by the skin of its teeth. A few weeks later, as fate would have it, Terry McDonell (my champion) did indeed leave his job as editor in chief of the magazine. Whatever short stories and feature articles he left behind never saw the light of day. Mine would have been among them, buried in a shallow grave, had I not been willing to make those cuts.

But I did make the cuts, thank heavens, and the story was cool and different because of it—and I got my big break. My story caught the eye of the literary agent who signed me up, and who has now guided my career with grace and precision for more than twenty years.

When I look back on that incident, I shudder at what I almost lost. Had I been more prideful, somewhere in the world today (probably in the bottom of my desk drawer) there would be a short story called “Pilgrims,” ten pages long, which nobody would’ve ever read. It would be untouched and pure, like polished granite, and I might still be a bartender.

I also think it’s interesting that, once “Pilgrims” was published in Esquire, I never really thought about it again. It was not the best thing I would ever write. Not even close. I had so much more work ahead of me, and I got busy with that work. “Pilgrims” was not a consecrated relic, after all. It was just a thing—a thing that I had made and loved, and then changed, and then remade, and still loved, and then published, and then put aside so that I could go on to make other things.

Thank God I didn’t let it become my undoing. What a sad and self-destructive act of martyrdom that would have been, to have rendered my writing so inviolable that I defended its sanctity to its very death. Instead, I put my trust in play, in pliancy, in trickery. Because I was willing to be light with my work, that short story became not a grave, but a doorway that I stepped through into a wonderful and bigger new life.

Be careful of your dignity, is what I am saying.

It is not always your friend.